Backstage at the Institute. Yes, that's THE costume.
About five years ago, I started a series of stories devoted to a month I spent in Scotland participating in the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, back when I was young and had a full head of hair. I passed the time with a group of actors from Trinity, including future Tony/Oscar-award winning actress Viola Davis.
The composition book I used as my journal, which is the source for these stories, has been sitting on my desk for the past two years, waiting for me to open it up and tell the next chapter. So, here it is...for you Live Journal users, just click on the keyword "Tartan" for the rest of the story...
Tuesday, August 15, 1989
"Please come see our show.”
The man standing in front of me stared down dubiously at the flyer I had handed him. He swept a meaty paw through what was left of his thinning hair and frowned. “I’m not sure I really want to see your show, son.”
“Oh, please see it!” I said, trying hard not to let my desperation show, and fully aware of the fact that the small theater inside was completely empty. “It’s a great show. You’ll love it. Really, you will. I promise.”
“What’s it about?”
“It’s called Crises in the Garden and Xantippe’s Lament. It has actors from Rhode Island!”
The man stared at me as if I had two heads. Then, he started walking away.
“Please!” But the man kept on walking. Desperately, I turned around to assault the first person in my path, an older woman with gray hair and sensible shoes. “Please come see our show,” I whined, hoping the pathetic desperate state I was in would somehow charm this poor woman into submission.
She glanced at the flyer. “What’s it about?”
I kept in mind my last conversation, and tried hard to avoid the words “Xantippe” and “Rhode Island” at all costs. “Oh, these are two great one act plays. You’ll just love them! Some of the best one act plays ever written. And really, when you get right down to it, who doesn’t love one act plays? They’ve got incredible, award-winning actors in them, too. One play’s about Adam and Eve. They wear flesh colored clothes and everything!”
“Oh.” The old lady seemed to take pity on me, for a minute. Then, her face hardened. “I don’t know, I have a sick friend to tend to…”
I looked down nervously at my watch. Five minutes until opening. Time to unleash the floodgates. “Oh, please! You don’t know the miserable night I’ve had. My boss—the director of this play—found out at 8:30 that the theater didn’t have the tickets here, so he asked me to pick them up at the Assembly Room, but when I went to the Assembly Room and I learned that they closed the Room at six, so I had to beg and plead to get them to open up, you know? And I got them to, but when they did, I learned that the tickets weren’t there, so I raced down to the Main Office…and got lost, may I add, really lost!...only to find out at 9:35 that Aleister—oh, he’s our contact here, really funny guy. Played Song for Guy on the piano the first night we were here, can you believe it? Because that’s one of my favorite songs and I was just listening to it on the plane ride to Scotland. Anyway, somehow I managed to find Aleister and I raced back here to the French Institut, only now it’s ten minutes before the play’s going to open and they tell me no one’s in the theater even though we tried to pass out a lot of flyers this morning, only my boss doesn’t think I really tried hard enough, and if I don’t get someone in that theater soon…well…anyway, would you please like to see our show?”
I think by this point the lady was a little bit afraid of me. Her face turned a paler shade of white, which was pretty hard to do in Scotland. “How…how much are the tickets?”
“It’s a bargain,” I said. “And I’ll let you in at half price.”
Earlier that evening, I had been doing a line through with Doug and Missa, the stars of In the Garden.
“I hate these clothes,” complained Missa in the middle of one of her lines. Our well-endowed Eve made a face and picked at the hem of her flesh-colored leotard.
“Me too,” said Doug, our Adam, brushing back his long flowing red hair dramatically. “They’re so freaking cutesy. I hate cutsey.”
“I wish there was something we could do to kill the cute,” said Missa, tossing her script to one side.
Doug thought for a moment. “Hey, maybe there is.”
A dramatic pause. Doug was quite fond of dramatic pauses. Also, hair flips. “Your character spends a lot of time wandering around the garden discovering things, right? Naming them?”
“Sure does,” giggled Missa. “Half the play.”
“Maybe that’s the problem with our costumes, then.”
“What do you mean?”
Doug started to bounce up and down, which was about as out of control as he ever allowed himself to get. “They’re too clean! She’s wandering through the garden, Missa! Climbing mountains, scrambling through mud. Lifting up rocks and naming insects. Would you be all clean and cute if you were doing stuff like that?” He shook his auburn locks again. “I think not.” A finger point. “You’d be dirty, right? So would I, too. So how can we make our costumes look dirty?”
“Ummmm…look around for a mud puddle?”
Doug grimaced. Clearly not the correct answer. “Well, we could do that…but that would take too much work, I think. Ted, you think you could scare up a garden hose?”
I decided to ignore this ridiculous request.
A moment. Then, an idea! This was ACTING! Doug snapped his fingers. “Hey! If we can’t get ourselves to a mud puddle, why not make the mud puddle come to us?”
Missa looked at him, strangely. “Even I don’t know you what you mean by that one, Doug…”
“Missa, you know that god-awful coffee that Margot made this morning? Tasted like crap, didn’t it? Do you think the grounds are still in the coffee maker?” Doug’s eyes grew wide, his smile broad. The sociopath lurking underneath the surface was finding its way out…in a controlled way, of course. “I think we can put those grounds to good use. Don’t you?”
One minute before opening. I stood by Doc, nervously playing with his program in the back of the theater. “Well, the tickets are all here and we’ve got…um, one person in the audience.”
Doc stared at me, clearly unhappy.
I tried to think of something positive to say. “But she’s really excited to see the play, Doc! She says she hasn’t, um, seen any Adam and Eve plays at all this year.”
Somehow, that didn't do much to lift his spirits. “Well, it’s about to get underway,” he said, resigned. “We’ll think of this as a dress rehearsal for tomorrow night.”
“The lights are lowering in the theater,” I said. “The stage lights are going up. And look, here’s Doug going on to the stage, making his—“
I watched as his face went from resignation to frustration, as his jaw tensed and he made the realization that—
“What’s that all over his costume?” Doc asked, carefully.
Oh! Oh, dear. Looks as if Doug and Missa neglected to tell him that—“Um, well, funny story, that. Um, coffee grounds.”
Doc squinted his eyes tightly. “Coffee grounds?”
I stepped back, afraid this former man of the cloth might finally come unhinged. “Yeah, well…see, they decided the clothes were too cute for their characters. Needed to be a little dirtier. So they decided to smear…um, coffee grounds all over…”
“Too…cute?” Doc squeezed my hand, tightly. I gasped, stopped talking. After a second or two, his grip relaxed.
Almost in slow motion, Doc walked away from me, to take a seat in the empty theater.
I don’t remember much of the play after that.
Three o’clock in the morning. In the flat. Laughing hysterically—Doug, Missa, our stage manager Rio, and Viola.
“It’s perfect!” Missa shrieks, sitting cross-legged on the ratty green couch that took up half the living room. I’m on the piano stool across from her, ignoring the annoying temptation to test out the upright.
Doug’s laughing, loudly, sitting next to her. “He’d believe it, too, you know.”
Viola nods. “Sure he would. With that much crazy, it’d be hard not to believe it.”
A wild gleam in Doug’s eye. “It’s decided. We blame it all on Tallulah! Tell Bill she was the one behind it all, that she was still angry about the parade. Felt we made Queenie look bad. And nooooooobody makes Queenie look bad.”
Missa’s laughing so hard she’s having trouble speaking. “So…so…she wanted revenge. She waits until we’re…we’re about to go onstage…”
“And then…and then she threw coffee grounds at us! Wet, sticky coffee grounds.” Doug looks off into the distance, imagining the scene. “I’d have to play it really serious. Look him straight in the eye. ‘She’s not well, Bill. She’s coming unglued! I’m scared.’”
Missa wipes at her eyes. “Queenie made me cry…”
“You know, maybe we should have had the courtesy to tell him,” says Doug, abruptly.
Missa grabs him arm. “We have to say SOMETHING to him, Doug. He’s not speaking to us right now!”
“He wouldn’t even congratulate us after our stellar performance in front of…what was the audience count, Ted?”
“One old lady.” I reply, insanely proud of my dubious achievement.
“One little old lady,” repeated Doug. “But that little old lady got the best we had to offer! Although maybe I shouldn’t improvised and said you had a nice butt, Missa. I mean, you do, but I’m not sure Doc liked that one, either…”
“I just feel bad,” said Rio, sitting cross-legged on the armchair. Like every good stage manager, she was fond of putting the weight of the world…well, at least the world that had been created…on her shoulders. “I should have warned him about it. I gave you the green light, after all.”
Doug wiped that away with a sweep of his arm. “Don’t worry, Rio! It’s all Queenie’s fault. That’s what you get for letting unstable character actresses take a flight to—“
Suddenly, there’s a loud noise outside the door to our flat. We all stop talking, immediately.
The doorknob twists around. From outside, we hear the rattling of keys. Missa looks around at all of us, wide eyed. “Who the hell would be trying to get in at three in the—“
“Shhhhh!” whispers Doug.
A key into the doorknob. It doesn’t fit. The rattling of keys again. Then, a weird scraping sound. I hold my breath. Then the sound of footsteps, moving down the hall.
The room is deadly silent. We all sit there, staring at each other.
“What in the hell was that?” Rio asks, slightly freaked.
Missa looks at her, deadly serious. “It’s Tallulah, Rio. Sharpening her knives. Queenie’s looking for REVENGE!”
The flat erupts into a wave of laughter. Missa holds her side, unable to breathe.
I turn to Viola, who’s sitting with her back against the couch and staring down into her coffee cup. “You okay? You’ve been quiet all night.”
“I miss A.,” she says softly, talking about her boyfriend back home. “It’s only been five days away, but it feels like forever.”
“What do you miss most about him?” I ask.
She considers that one. "His big schlong,” and then, winks at me.
Twenty years later, and I finally understand exactly what she was talking about.